It turns out that the discrimination experienced in the workplace by people with a so-called migrant background is a major reason for them to start their own business.Our research study focused on the life stories of 91 business owners with roots in Ghana, Morocco, the United States, Poland, Syria and former Yugoslavia. These life stories were documented by peer researchers: researchers with the same background as the respondent. Our respondents’ stories revealed that the discrimination that they had experienced during job interviews, but also in the workplace, was one of the reasons for starting their own business (report in Dutch).This article is based on research finalized in December 2019. Given the current pandemic we feel the need to express our concern over the well-being of our respondents. They are, as we will show, not by definition self-employed by choice. We call for solidarity with the solo-self-employed and business owners with migrant roots losing assignments and income rapidly.MicroaggressionsIt was certainly not all of our respondents who explicitly said that they had been the victim of discrimination. They also did not file discrimination complaints with local complaint boards or the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights. In fact, rarely had they heard of such possibilities. They could not even adequately explain the reason for leaving their job, what drove them away, or why they did not feel welcome in their workplace. However, when asked directly, they confirmed that they felt as if they had suffered some degree of discrimination. How is this discrepancy possible?American psychiatrist and professor Chester M. Pierce coined the term for the phenomenon we described above, namely, microaggression. This term was coined by Pierce in 1970 as a means of describing the abusive and offensive comments and behaviour that many black Americans had to deal with on a daily basis.You can take a joke, can’t you?During the last few decades, sociologist Derald W. Sue built upon the idea of his compatriot and described how these microaggressions towards minority groups need not be intentionally offensive. On the contrary, sometimes, they are even well-intentioned. However, the research carried out by Sue and his colleagues revealed that this well-meaning ‘affable’ behaviour may severely hinder minority groups in their work- and personal life. For several weeks afterwards, his research subjects still carried feelings of frustration, sadness, and anger.Even though the term microaggression may give the impression that these are small (micro) incidents, in sociological terms, micro is used to indicate the fact that the relevant events are played out at individual level. People who are faced with microaggressions experience these on a personal basis, but they also have difficulty finding anyone who is willing to listen to their experience.A misplaced comment here, a disparaging compliment there, and remarks such as “you can take a joke, can’t you?” may be seen as harmless commentary, but research has actually shown that these can severely damage the self-confidence of the person who is subjected to them. Sue has even dubbed microaggressions the “new face of racism”.A sense of social insecurity in the workplaceThese microaggressions also popped up in our research study. Let’s take Abena’s story as an example. Abena is a Ghanaian business owner. She describes the feeling that she gets from microaggressions as a personal problem. She tells us that she never felt comfortable in the workplace.The interviewer asks Abena about this, and she recounts a shocking incident: while she was still in regular employment, during a power outage, her office manager asked her to smile in the dark, “because otherwise we won’t be able to see you,” he told her.“And then everyone in the office had to laugh,” she says despondently. Abena experienced this as an extremely offensive comment that was based on the colour of her skin. “Apparently I’m the only one who didn’t find it funny, and that’s a little upsetting.”Abena herself said that she deliberately did not bring it up, because she is afraid that people will see her as the person who repeatedly plays the discrimination card. This feeling of social insecurity in the workplace ultimately led to her decision to become self-employed so that she could choose her own colleagues and work environment.From a legal point of view, the question can be raised whether this is a matter of discrimination. Can we really be sure that the manager deliberately wanted to mock Abena? Or was he just making a joke?Proving discrimination legally is difficultAt moments like these, business owners like Abena are not always sure about whether they are dealing with discrimination or whether they should simply be able to ‘take a joke’. Research has shown, however, that these kinds of remarks, microaggressions, stem from prejudices and stereotyping. On the basis of this, it is therefore certainly possible to speak of discriminatory behaviour.However, the problem arises when this has to be proven at either the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights or in court. Because when we speak of legal discrimination, we are generally referring to discrimination at the point that there are actual consequences involved, for example, when you are not hired for a particular job because of your age.There is little information available on what to do when you experience discrimination in the workplace. There are websites that provide tips (for example, see meld.nl or discriminatie.nl (both in Dutch)), but there are no obvious guidelines. In addition, this approach places the responsibility for fighting discrimination on those who are affected by it.This responsibility should - at the very least – be shared with organisation’s management, who should develop a greater degree of awareness about microaggressions and stipulate how they can create a work environment that is free of it. This is the only way that a workplace can be developed where everyone feels comfortable.Recommendation: a greater degree of decisiveness and awarenessOur research showed that migrants frequently prefer to work in a self-employed capacity than to work in a discriminatory work environment. Not that they do not experience discrimination when they are self-employed, but they do have more freedom when it comes to choosing colleagues and clients. In our report What Works for Entrepreneurial Migrants?, we make a number of recommendations for preventing discrimination and, where relevant, for actively fighting discrimination.We maintain that members of government and other public role models should speak out much more strongly against discrimination based on skin colour or race. This would not only increase awareness about discrimination and microaggression, but it would also create more scope for people who encounter discrimination so that they can defend themselves against it.In addition, awareness of the available options for filing complaints about discrimination should be increased. This would consequently strengthen people’s ability to stand up for themselves. If discrimination is to be genuinely addressed and truly eradicated, we must join forces, there must be a greater degree of decisiveness and awareness, and laws and regulations must be amended in order to ensure that all Dutch residents are protected from exclusion.Text: Ivana Kalaš, currently unaffiliated researcher due to pandemic forces, and Tesseltje de Lange, professor of Sociology and Migration Law at Radboud University. This article previously appeared (in Dutch) on the Sociale Vraagstukken website. Image by Viktor Forgacs via Unsplash.